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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


TANCRED, Henry John


Administrator and scholar.

A new biography of Tancred, Henry John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

H. J. Tancred was born at Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, a younger son of Sir Thomas Tancred, Sixth Baronet, and was educated at Rugby under Arnold. Being a younger son of a landed family, he had to make his own way in the world, and he chose to enlist as a cadet in a hussar regiment in the Austrian Army. He served in the suppression of the nationalist movements of 1848 in the Austrian Empire. While acting as King's Messenger he had a serious fall from his horse and broke his jaw and his thigh. As a result he had ever afterwards a certain impediment in his speech and walked with a dragging foot.

He went to England for his sick leave and, becoming interested in the settlement of Canterbury, resigned his commission and purchased a land order for 50 acres from the Canterbury Association. He landed first at Wellington, where he met J. R. Godley, and he arrived at Lyttelton by the Barbara Gordon shortly before the Pilgrims. He was then 34 years old, a man of varied experience and wide reading. He must have made an impression, for he was voted to the committee of the Canterbury Land Purchasers' Association and was chairman of the Christchurch Colonists' Society (which speedily collapsed owing to the undemocratic point of view of the chief organisers). He was a candidate in the contest for the first Superintendency of Canterbury and was criticised for splitting the “dear land” vote and giving Colonel Campbell and his “cheap land” a chance. In any case FitzGerald's prestige made him unbeatable for the Superintendency. He was elected to the Provincial Council and was a member for most of its existence; and, until his acceptance of the post of Speaker, he was leader of the executives for longer than any other member.

In 1856 he was called to the Legislative Council and was twice a Minister without portfolio. He was Attorney-General in 1859 and Secretary for Crown Lands and Postmaster-General under Stafford. In 1855 his Canterbury posts were Resident Magistrate in Lyttelton and Christchurch, Keeper of the Public Records, Sheriff, and Commissioner of Police.

When Charles Bowen resigned the Speakership of the Council in February 1865, John Ollivier announced that he was a candidate for the vacancy, but he immediately withdrew when it became known that Tancred was being considered. The Lyttelton Times, discussing him, said: “He is a gentleman of large experience and perfect independence of character and position; he represents very completely those settlers who at the first gave such a tone and character to Canterbury as have raised it to the highest position among other colonies. He has only one drawback, indeed, but that is important; he lacks the tone and power of speech required by one who may have to rule amidst the storms of debate”. In spite of his unfortunate defect, it appears that he gave general satisfaction as Speaker.

He and his brother took up the station of 10,000 acres between the Selwyn and the Rakaia, known as Malvern Hills. He lived there and looked after it when his political activities allowed. He sold his share of the run in 1858 to Bishop Harper.

Practically all Tancred's political life, except for his time as Speaker, was spent on the executive and administrative side and was hidden from the public gaze; and, indeed, it would seem that this was what he preferred. There is no doubt that his ability was highly regarded by those with whom he worked. He was defeated in various elections by men who were obviously his inferior in ability and it seems that he was quite lacking in the gift of addressing an election crowd and winning its sympathy and regard. It may have been his defective speech, or perhaps his great learning lay too heavily upon him, or perhaps he was given to sarcasm. Crosbie Ward gives us a clue in his Songs before Session.

“Herr Tancred is coming, Oh! Dear! Oh! Dear!

Herr Tancred is coming, Oh! Dear!

To prove education

Is best for the nation

Enforced by a tax and a jeer.

It should be remembered, however, that he spent the formative years of his youth as an officer in the most hated army in Europe, quelling nationalist risings.

While his success as a democratic politician must be qualified, his generous enthusiasm for the cause of education was undoubted. But it was university education that really interested him. He believed in schools but only to give the bare essentials to the working classes. He was chairman of the first provincial commission on education which issued a report, later famous, on organised education in Canterbury. When the Collegiate Union (the forerunner of Canterbury College) started to organise lectures in 1874, he was lecturer in history, and he and his wife enrolled themselves as students in the botany and zoology classes. He was an original Governor of the Collegiate Union and of Canterbury College, and was the first Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, retaining that office until his death. He was a Fellow of Christ's College for many years and founded the Tancred Scholarship. He was president of the first Canterbury Society of Arts.

Nearly all his work was done behind the scenes. He shunned publicity. He was looked upon with respect for his ability and with admiration for his learning. He has left no legend; no stories are told of him; Dr Barker did not take his photograph. His natural bent was authoritarian and he was never quite at home in a young democracy. He married on 30 July 1859 at Nelson, Georgiana Janet Grace, only daughter of the Hon. Major Richmond, C.B., M.L.C. He died on 27 April 1884, aged 68.

by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.

  • Rulers and Statesmen of New Zealand, Gisborne, W. (1897)
  • Early Canterbury Runs, Acland, L. G. D. (1946).


George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.